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Literature / The Father Christmas Letters

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Between 1920 and 1943, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a series of letters to his children purportedly from Father Christmas, in which he told them about his life at the North Pole and his helpers and acquaintances - most prominently the good-hearted but accident-prone North Polar Bear.

The letters were illustrated by Tolkien himself in his idiosyncratic style.

With the public appetite for more Tolkien writings after his death in 1973, the Letters were collected and published in 1976. An expanded version with more material, re-titled Letters from Father Christmas, was released in 2004.

This work provides examples of:

  • Art Shift/Unconventional Formatting: Used by Tolkien to make it seem as though more than one person contributed to the letters. Father Christmas' handwriting is particularly trembly, although his hand usually steadies up when he has to draw anything; his secretary's notes in the margins are written in a neat, flowing hand and in a different color of ink; the North Polar Bear writes with vaguely runic block letters, and draws in a similarly bold and angular style.
  • Author Tract: In one letter, Father Christmas spends some time talking about how much he dislikes cars. This is probably Tolkien's own views shining through; famously he hated cars and shortly after World War II sold off the family car and carried on most of his life by bicycle.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: When the North Polar Bear breaks its leg, Father Christmas stops momentarily complaining about his antics, telling the bear is also a big help and hopes he heals soon.
  • Badass Santa: Father Christmas leads his elves into battle against the goblins in the later letters (he writes that the goblins' strength is proportional to the rise of strife due to World War II.)
  • Bears Are Bad News: Inverted, although the NPB does manage to upset quite a lot of things by accident. Played straight from the goblins' perspective, as NPB is described as being invulnerable to their arrows and easily thrashes hordes of them with little effort.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: Starting on 1939, the tone becomes sadder as Father Christmas talks about the terrible war.
  • Christmas Elves: Kind of, but being as Tolkien was involved, the elves in this universe have a lot in common with their counterparts in his Legendarium. Particularly noteworthy is Father Christmas's secretary Ilbereth, who writes in a distinctive Elvish script.
  • Crossover Cosmology: Father Christmas refers to his own father, Grandfather Yule, who represents the pre-Christian pagan winter solstice festival. He also mentions his 'Green Brother', whom we learn little about, but some people have speculated is the symbol of the summer solstice.
  • Cypher Language: The North Polar Bear invents one based on goblins' cave drawings and sends his own letters to the children in it.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: The North Polar Bear's two mischievous nephews are named Paksu and Valkotukka, which means "Fat" and "White Hair" in Finnish - but, unfortunately, "tukka" only applies to human hair! NPB himself is revealed to be named Karhu, which is Finnish for "bear".
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: The North Polar Bear when he fights the goblins, being usually rather hapless and accident-prone.
  • Nephewism: The North Polar Bear has two nephews, Paksu and Valkotukka, who come to stay with their uncle and basically never leave. We never hear about their parents.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The North Polar Bear's real name is Karhu, but this rarely comes up.
  • Our Elves Are Different: Unlike Tolkien's usual Elves, these are more the traditional Victorian version, gnome-sized. This doesn't stop them kicking arse.
  • Our Goblins Are Different: The goblins here are also very small, essentially the elves' Evil Counterpart.
  • Polar Bears and Penguins: Justified. Father Christmas sends a picture featuring the Polar Bear and penguins dancing, explaining those penguins swam from the southern hemisphere to come to his aid.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: A number of the letters seem to be explanations for why Tolkien's kids didn't get all the presents they asked for; usually either the North Polar Bear has screwed something up, or goblins have attacked — and sometimes Father Christmas just explains that with the war going on, he has to prioritize the war victims.
    • When Father Christmas gets a secretary, part of the reason is probably that his very trembly handwriting was taking a lot of time to do; Ilbereth's firmer and more flowing handwriting must have been a lot quicker and easier.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Father Christmas says he is as old as Christmas itself, giving his age as the year (around 1,930).
  • Shout-Out: One of the letters (written when Tolkien had started writing The Hobbit) contains an image showing both Smaug (as a cave painting) and Gollum (peeking round the corner of a cave).
    • Father Christmas's elf secretary, who often adds notes in the margins of the letters, is named Ilbereth — which should amuse anyone who's read The Lord of the Rings.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: The North Polar Bear has a tendency to boast and overestimate his own abilities, though fair's fair: when things get truly dangerous he'll always rise to the occasion and become a force to be reckoned with.
  • The Stars Are Going Out: A mild example, when the North Polar Bear breaks the North Pole (literally), the Pole Star turns red until it is repaired.
  • Theme Naming: The polar bears have Finnish names, either because Finland is appropriately northerly or just because Tolkien liked the language.